Top-down Bottom-up

A couple of posts on a listserv attracted my attention since people were discussing what the terms top-down and bottom-up might mean. It concerned me that the definitions might unintentionally cast a bias over the discussion, so I provided the following [with the posts following and my comments appended].

From The Teachers Handbook by Shrum & Glisan, pp 51-53:

“….{In the bottom up approach] Students analyze and learn grammar rules and vocabulary, and then later practice using them in communication. Rivers used the terms skill getting and skill using to characterize this dichotomy. Skill getting refers to the type of practice that helps students “learn” grammatical structures, while in skill-using students use the learned structures in communicative activities designed to focus their atention on meaningful interaction.” [and goes on to describe mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills].

“A top-down approach to language instruction resists reducing languages to word lists, verb conjugatins, discrete grammar points, or isolated linguistic elements. In this approach learners are presented with a “whole” text (e.g. story, poem, song, tape recorded listening selection), are guided through its main ideas, explore these ideas through interaction with others, and then focus on specific details and/or linguistic structures (e.g. vocabulary, grammar). Learners manipulate language to communicate thoughts using higher-level skills (e.g. relating knowledge from several areas, using known ideas to create new ones, generalizaing from facts, predicting, drawing conclusions) before attending to discrete language structures with the use of lower-level skills (e.g. recognizing, identifying, recalling, explaining, observing, interpreting). By means of activites such as negotiation of meaning and joint problem solving with the teacher and classmates, learners demonstrate performance before competetence, that is, they participate in a more complex task than they are capable of completing without assistance.”

These definitions present us with a good take-off point for discussion of how we teach and what expectations we have both of ourselves and of our students. Anyone interested in discussing this with me can go to the copy of this titled “Top-down Bottom-up” on my blog at

Pat Barrett

>I believe the term “top-down” describes tasks in which one pays little
> attention to details. Instead, one attempts to focus on broad and general
> information. This approach in teaching would allow students to see what is
> referred to as “the big picture.”
> The “top-down” approach has not been the traditional way grammar instruction
> has been presented in classes. Since generalizations are easier to remember
> than specifics, using the “top-down” approach can result in students not
> having to remember so much.
> “Bottom-up” refers to a task in which one pays attention to small details or
> to a teaching approach in which the focus is on the details.
> Hello!
> I’m embarrassed to confess that I don’t know what the “top-down” approach
> for FL instruction is. Would someone mind explaining this to me? (And what’s
> the “bottom-up” approach then?) I have only heard these terms in English
> language reading instruction and with phonetic/grapheme awareness of one’s
> primary language. (Or maybe my brain has forgotten what these things are
> since it’s been a while and since it’s late on a Friday evening and my
> brain’s
> about to shut down.)

Barrett’s comments:
Those of us who use the top-down approach, which we call communicative teaching, must admit that some students do very well with grammar explanations and word lists. Memorization, if followed up by use of L2, may permit some internalization of the vocabulary and grammar features memorized. But in the final analysis, I think most of us believe that the real “acquisition” occurs through the massive exposure to L2, through input. That input occurs b/c the student has to read a lot of material and listen to a lot of material. For us, the immense amount of time spent on grammar is superfluous. But I just don’t know of any way that that has been proved up to this point. So, for that reason, a lot of teacher and students will continue to insist on the bottom-up approach to insure accuracy.

Another problem for us communicativists is that lots of communicative teaching is done by people like me, people who had no training at first. Only by taking classes in methodology, by attending conferences, and by reading lots and lots on SLA did we begin to practice any kind of consistent top-down teaching, any kind of communicative classroom. In the meantime, our grammar-driven colleagues were producing a few top students who scored well on national tests, took honors at festivals, and won scholarships to travel abroad. Our students were often “found lacking” when they couldn’t conjugate a verb or name all the tenses.

The skill-getting and skill-using referred to above was what I often think of when I think of those really good teachers of the bottom-up approach. Active, dynamic, enthusiastic, they teach structure after structure, drilling intensely on them, all the while demonstrating a contagious love of the language and culture of the TL. They will produce some students who will go on to learn L2. And it is those students those who would disparage the top-down approach point to.

I think at bottom, this is the same argument we have about education in general, about child rearing, and even about the role of government: internal control vs external control, self-directed versus rule directed, independence vs authority, creativity vs tradition, etc. Loaded terms to be sure. We might reword these as: self-centered vs. adherence to rules, ego-driven vs observance of the common good, isolated arrogance vs loyalty, anything goes vs the good of the order. George Lakoff, in several books on politics, incl Moral Politics, has labeled these extremes as the Strict Father model of the family vs the Nuturing Parent model. Most of us fall somewhere along a spectrum connecting the two extremes.

Why is my bias toward the top-down model? I like the word “meaning” to explain this. The bottom-up model asks us to accept things on authority, to show respect for things we don’t understand, and to learn by rote without questioning why we are learning them. Meaning infuses ……… well, meaning. Meaning gives us a rationale, a direction, an objective, and causes things to make sense, things like perfect/imperfect aspects, relative clauses deleting pronouns, etc.

Rote learning can be very powerful and those who are good at it can wow us with what they know. But anecdotal, personal experience tells us that the competence often masks a supreme indifference to meaning, to import, to implication, to connections. This experience is so telling that we cannot dismiss it without a fair hearing. We don’t want to wallow with those who would teach via the transmission model, the “bunch o’ facts” way of teaching.

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